Grand Parisian homes open to everyone
Entrance to the Musée Nissim de Comondo. Images courtesy of the author.
By Jerry Marterer
Around the end of the 19th century, when the arts were flourishing and private wealth was accumulating, prominent families, some of them nouveau riche, built spacious homes in the city and decorated them with the finest art and antiques. Several of the families left these homes and their contents to the city of Paris, often with an endowment to maintain them in their original lived-in state, down to the kitchens, servants’ quarters and boudoirs. All these homes-into-museums have unique stories, some romantique, some tragique. It is a great opportunity to see how people lived their day-to-day lives. A few homes even incorporate a restaurant or café. All are reachable by Métro or bus.
The Musée Jacquemart André is simply breathtaking, inside and out, but anyone could walk past it without noticing. Hidden behind a wall on the now commercial boulevard Haussmann at number 158, the mansion reflects an era when homes were set back from the street for privacy. This classic city house has a wide, bow-windowed salon facing the street, but these grand homes put their most elaborate faces toward their gardens, which are in back. Enter from the gate at the right end of the wall. It is the start of a long semicircular drive that winds around to the rear of the home. The Google aerial view shows the only such mansion and garden left in the once elite neighborhood. The double staircase in the entry evokes Garnier’s opera house, built in the same era. The glass-roofed winter garden is an architectural wonder. Imagine the story of a banking heir who built an idyllic manor, hired a young artist to paint his portrait, fell in love with her and then married her. It’s the stuff of fairy tales. During their lifetimes, Édouard André and Nélie Jacquemart amassed a museum-quality collection of art and furnishings spanning the Renaissance through the 18th century. Spaced throughout the rooms are works by Botticelli, Canaletto, Rembrandt, Hals, Van Dyck, Fragonard and Boucher. There is a pleasant café for lunch in the elegant Louis XV dining room. Use the number nine Métro to Miromesnil, or the number 28 bus to the stop at Haussmann-Miromesnil.
The exquisite winding staircases of the Winter Garden in the Musée Jacquemart-André (above) and the Musée Gustave Moreau (below).
Two townhouses on the park
The Parc Monceau in the eighth arrondissement takes credit for being the first high-end gated community in Paris. It was originally laid out in 1779 as a private park with English, Chinese and French garden styles complete with a pyramid and Roman columns. The mélange of eras and geographies was to create a fantasy park, also called a “folly.” When it was finished, the park abutted the new wall that circled Paris, known as the Farmers General. It was not a fortification but a means of collecting tolls on such staples as produce and salt entering the city. Tollhouses were constructed that acted as gates. They were built to impress in the Neoclassical style. The wall was highly unpopular with the citizens and was mostly destroyed by angry mobs in 1789 before the revolution. Under Napoléon III, half the park was sold off by the aristocratic owners to developers for the building of luxury homes. The other half was sold to Paris and became a park, which is only open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Of the original 16 tollhouse gates, only four in Paris remain. One of them sits at the north entrance of the park. The upper floor of the colonnaded rotunda houses the fifth-generation watchman who tends the gates, keeping the park secure for the townhomes that have 24-hour access. Two of the classic townhomes are now museums. For both, use the number 30 or 94 bus (Monceau), the number two Métro (Monceau) or the number three Métro (Villiers).
Tollhouse, Park Monceau.
The Musée Nissim de Comondo is at 63 rue de Monceau. The Comondo families were Sephardic Jews who fled Spain during the Inquisition and founded a bank in Constantinople. Two brothers, Abraham and Nissim, settled in Paris in the 1870s in town houses on the park. Nissim’s son Moïse had his town house razed and built a new one in 1914 designed after the Petit Trianon in Versailles. It is lavishly decorated with antique paneling, murals, classic furniture and Gobelins tapestries. The coming years, however, would bring multiple tragedies to the family. Moïse’s son, Nissim, became an Air Force pilot in the First World War and was killed in combat in 1917. When Moïse died in 1935, he left the home and its contents to the city of Paris and named it in honor of Nissim. In the kitchen and scullery, the servants’ dinner table is set for dinner. Multiple salons, a library and porcelain and silver on the tables make the public feel like invited guests. In 1943 and 1944, Moïse’s daughter, Béatrice, her husband and their children were sent to Auschwitz where they died. The museum stands as a memorial to both the noblest and darkest days of Paris. We always exit in a reflective mood.
In 2017, a luxury restaurant opened inside the museum. I’m sure it will benefit the finances of the museum, but I’m not quite sure I am comfortable with it yet.
At 7 avenue Velasquez, just around the corner, is the Musée Cernuschi. Enrico Cernuschi came to Paris from Italy in 1848. He made his fortune in banking during the Second Empire and set out to explore the world. He was smitten with the art and artifacts of Japan and China and built one of Europe’s greatest personal collections of Asian art, which he arrayed in the home he built on the edge of the Parc Monceau. He left the home and collection to the city of Paris. Although the home doesn’t have the lived-in look of the previous two, it is still impressive to tour the spacious, well-lit rooms that became a museum two years after Cernuschi’s death in 1898. Bronzes, Asian carvings, pottery, porcelain and delicate lacquered pieces are displayed in an uncluttered way that uses the natural light from the immense windows.
As we were walking through the Parc Monceau one October day, we began thinking about lunch. The area had a lot of offices, and we watched well-dressed young professionals filing into Le Monceau, a restaurant that cuts through the triangle formed by the intersection of the rue de Lisbonne and the rue Monceau. With soft gray tones, wall sconces and quiet conversations, it didn’t seem like a mom-and-pop kind of place. We decided to try it. For starters, we split an endive salad with bleu cheese and walnuts. Our main courses were duck breast with potatoes au gratin, and blanquette de veau, a lamb stew in a thick white sauce. I asked our server if the robust-looking gentleman in charge was le patron (the owner). “Yes,” she said, “and that woman over there is la patronne.” So, a mom-and-pop place after all. It actually has two street addresses, 37 rue Monceau or 41 rue Lisbonne.
On the other side of town, the Musée Cognacq-Jay has its roots in the Samaritaine department store, which became the premier place to shop for luxury goods when it opened in 1907. Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay, began their business selling clothes from a street stall and opened their first boutique in 1869. The grand right bank department store faces the Pont Neuf. Long appreciated for its combination of Art Déco and Art Nouveau styling and the panoramic views from its rooftop café, the store was closed in 2005 because of structural issues. Rumors have it reopening one day as apartments and office space. Like many of the wealthy of the time, the childless Cognacq-Jays built an extensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century art and furniture, which they donated to the city of Paris. The collection had been housed in several locations, but in 1990 it was installed in a 16th-century townhouse in the Marais, at 7 rue Elzevir, near the Place des Vosges. The carved oak paneling from the Cognacq-Jays’ original home lines the salons. A small Louvre in itself, the home holds paintings by Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Rubens, Canaletto, Guardi, Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau, and countless other masterworks. The Renaissance townhouse has a courtyard and garden and looks like a mini château. Despite the blending of four centuries, it all comes together to impress and delight. Take the number 69 bus to St. Paul or the number one or number seven Métro to the stop of the same name.
The French would say that the art of Gustave Moreau has a certain “Je ne sais quoi,” meaning “I can’t describe it, but it’s intriguing.” Scholars have called him a mystic and a symbolist. The word “orphisme” has been used to refer to his “language of light.” His dream-state religious and mythical images appear as psychedelic as some of the drug-induced art of the 1960s. He could also be credited with anticipating surrealism. He led the secretive life of a loner and rarely exhibited. As a result, his work is still underappreciated today. However, his home reflects the spirit of the artist and his art. Several years before his death in 1898, he began transforming his home into a showplace for his life’s work.
Close detail on Les Argonautes by Gustave Moreau.
He designed custom cabinets into the structure that would allow visitors to leaf through portfolios of his smaller works. An elaborate wrought-iron circular staircase separates the first and second stories. Large paintings are placed floor to ceiling and his sculptures appear throughout. Moreau’s living quarters have been left undisturbed. The residence is a good example of the upper-middle-class town houses that once filled the neighborhood. The address is 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld. Take the number 12 Métro to the Trinité stop.
A few blocks north, at 16 rue Chaptal, is the Musée de la Vie Romantique. Although in the same general area as the home of Moreau, this country manor and garden are from a much earlier time when the neighborhood was a rural suburb called Nouvelle Athènes. The two-story manor has a beige exterior with green shutters and is set among rose gardens. It’s easy to imagine being in Provence. The museum’s name refers to the Romantic era of art, music and literature during the time that the painter Ary Scheffer lived there from 1830 to 1858. His overly sentimental paintings have not gained him great fame, but his houseguests and salons included George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt as well as more renowned painters such as Ingres, Delacroix and his neighbor, Gustave Moreau. Chopin’s études play in the background throughout the sitting rooms. The home and grounds are at their best in the spring and summer when you can enjoy the outdoor café after touring the highly decorated rooms and the art studio.
These homes reflected the wealth of their owners and their desire to leave a legacy, but not all homes open to the public are grand, particularly those of writers, artists and historical figures. Those will be the subject of another chapter.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.